Extravagance is an ocean the rich and famous have swam in for millennia. Think of the gold the Pharaoh’s wrapped everything in, think of the enormous buildings and monuments the Caesar’s built throughout the Roman Empire, and think of the lavish lifestyles of the Popes during the Reformation. In our day the same story rings true for the rich and famous. David Beckham’s wife Posh Spice had a custom iPhone made for her from 24K gold that set her back $33,000. Jay-Z and Beyonce had a $44,000 diamond encrusted bathtub made for their daughter Blue Ivy. Lady Gaga spent $50,000 on a ghost detector machine she keeps at her concerts to alert her of spiritual threats coming to destroy her concerts. And when Celine Dion signed her three-year contract to sing for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas they installed a $2,000,000 humidifier that hung over her and to keep her voice fresh during her performances. And we could go on and on and on. I don’t begin this way for no reason. We would all agree that in our age it isn’t difficult to find absurd and inappropriate extravagance.

But in our text this morning we see a stunning display of devotion directed at Christ that is just as extravagant as these examples. And the crazy thing about it is that Jesus accepts this offering as completely appropriate!

Richard Phillips, in his commentary on John, says John 12:1-11 shows us this extravagant devotion in three phases: devotion modeled, devotion challenged, and devotion threatened. His outline of the text is superb, I do not feel I can improve upon it so the three points of this sermon are the three points in his commentary.[1]

Devotion Modeled (v1-3)

As John 11 ends and the chief priests came to agreement that they needed to kill Jesus, we saw Jesus leave the city and go to Ephraim to be with His disciples. As John 12 begins in v1 we see Jesus return (there must be steel in His bones! I belong to My Father, what can man do to me!!! What an example for us in following Christ through hostility). He returns to Bethany six days before the Passover to be with His friends again. John reminds us that Bethany was where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And because He came His friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus threw Him a dinner party. Hosting a dinner party was a courageous thing to do after 11:57 where the people were told that if anyone knew where Jesus was they had to tell the authorities so they could nab Him, which implies that if someone knew where He was and didn’t tell them the penalty would’ve been severe. That they have a feast for Him in public, without hiding, in the first place would’ve been a brave thing to do.[2] It speaks greatly of their willingness to be with Him rather than remain in safety. Now, we don’t see a guest list here. It could’ve been just the four of them or it could’ve included many people from the village who had been at the tomb when Jesus resurrected Lazarus. We do see what the three friends were doing though. Martha is doing the serving, Lazarus is doing the eating and reclining at the table no doubt enjoying being alive, and Mary, well Mary does something so extravagant that it caused quite a stir.

John tells us in v3, “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair.” We see an action like this and are a bit confused because this custom seems a bit distant from us. In their day expensive ointments or perfumes like this were often used and poured on someone’s head for special days whether it be a wedding or a festivity of some kind. In describing this event John seems to go out of his way here to point out that this action was fantastically expensive.[3] Mary grabbed perfume, not just any perfume but expensive perfume, not made from any old plant by the side of the road, no, this stuff was made from pure nard, and she poured all of it out, a whole jar of it. In v5 we learn more, that this much of that kind of perfume costs 300 denarii, which was a year’s salary to a common worker. This is the equivalent of $40,000 today. In a few seconds, in one pour, it’s all gone. Some conclude from this that these friends must have been wealthy to be able to afford perfume like this. If they were they show a good example of not hoarding riches but using riches for good and godly purposes. But we don’t know of their wealth or lack thereof, the perfume could’ve been a family heirloom, something of a prized possession in the home.[4] Whatever their economic status was, that she used this whole costly jar up in this moment showed what she truly valued.

This action was not only fantastically expensive, it was action was fantastically humble. How so? Well, John says Mary didn’t anoint His head but His feet. Bathing wasn’t as common then as it is today and streets were not as clean then as they are today. Taking these things into account and adding the heat of the day into the mix, you can only imagine how nasty and smelly feet were back then. Because of this when one entered someone’s home either a slave or they themselves would have to wash their feet so nothing would get tracked in. To attend to ones feet in this day was the duty of the lowliest of slaves.[5] This act is all the more striking because in this day a Jewish woman wouldn’t normally let down their hair in public, to do so was seen as a mark of loose morals.[6] Recall that John the Baptist once said he was unworthy to even untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet (1:27). That Mary attended to Christ’s feet and wiped them off with her own hair, was her own way of saying the same thing, and it indicated that she was gladly willing to not only freely give to Him what was very costly to her, she was also willing to do the lowliest of tasks for the sake of Christ.

Charles Spurgeon, seeing how each of these three show their inward devotion to Christ outwardly, once said, “The children of God do not always feel moved to serve the Lord Jesus in the same fashion or to express their love to Him in precisely the same manner.”[7] Martha served, Lazarus reclined, and Mary, what an example we see in Mary, she gave sacrificially and served humbly. Mary’s love for Christ was extravagant and her actions remind us that it is always appropriate for an extravagant display of devotion to Christ. Perhaps Mary was thinking of Isaiah’s vision of beautiful feet, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Isaiah 52:7).[8] Perhaps she looked at Christ, who He was, what He was doing, what He was teaching, and concluded that He was worthy, worthy of everything she had.

Church, what could you and I possibly do that would be too extravagant in honoring Jesus, too extravagant in praising Him, too extravagant in giving Him glory? Is there an offering to big? Is there a song to loud? Is there a study too deep? Is there a heart to happy? No! What are you, right now, giving to Christ that shows your love for Him? What could you, right now, give to Christ that shows your love for Him? Is it extravagant? Is it costly? It is sacrificial? When it comes down to it, if we know Jesus we’ll recognize that in Him we have more than any earthly possession could ever give us. This frees us to give extravagantly, not only to one another, but back to God as well.

When we the result of Mary’s very visible devotion in v3b, was that the whole house was filled with a pleasant aroma, we cannot help but think of the pleasant aroma of gospel grace that fills this place as we serve one another sacrificially and humbly.[9] But as we move on to v4 we see that not everyone was as pleased.

Devotion Challenged (v4-8)

Notice how v4 is given to us, “But Judas…” Which Judas you may ask? John doesn’t want us to mistake this figure for another so he gives us three clear markers. First he is Judas Iscariot. Second he is one of the disciples. And third he is the one who was about to betray Jesus. This Judas said in v5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” On the surface of things this could be interpreted as a good question, one that shows a true heart to care and provide for the poor in their community. But we have already seen v4 where John told us Judas was a traitor; that gives a dark shade to anything Judas will say in v5. More so implied in the v5 question is the belief that it was a waste to pour it all out on Jesus’ feet and that it could’ve been put to better use. If we didn’t have v6 in the text we could see much about what’s implied in Judas’ question in v4-5 to interpret Judas as the crook he was. But we’re not left with any uncertainty here, we have John’s own inspired interpretation in v6. “He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” Mary’s model devotion is now challenged. Displaying himself as a humanitarian, one who cares deeply for the poor in their community, Judas questions the use of this perfume. ‘This perfume is valuable, we could do much good with the money if we sold it. Why did we not do that?’ But that’s not really what’s going on is it? Judas is angry sure, but his anger isn’t about money wasted that could’ve gone to the poor, he’s angry about money wasted that could’ve gone into his own pockets. He was not only the treasurer of the disciples, he often helped himself from what was collected and so to see something worth so much get wasted on Jesus moves him to ask why.

But let’s look at Judas’s question more deeply. On the surface of things Judas displays a kind of utilitarian outlook that believes practical and pragmatic good works for the poor are far better than spending time with the Lord and giving Him extravagant gifts.[10] Sure, Judas didn’t want to do anything for the poor, he was lying about that, but I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say something similar. ‘Pastor, you should stop giving sermons about theology and the glory of God and just be practical telling us how to help the needy, poor, and the lost.’[11] When I hear this I want to agree and say that I get it. Sometimes those who have been most eager about theological concerns haven’t been eager at all about aiding the poor and needy. Sure, that’s sinful and requires repentance. Turn this around to the other ugly side of the coin and see what Judas is doing. Sometimes those most eager about helping the poor are the ones using their humanitarian efforts to prop up their own self-righteousness and mask a heart that hates God. ‘True religion has nothing to do with God, but has everything to do with helping the helpless. Let’s get away with doctrine and just help people! I hope they use that offering to help the poor!’ This kind of attitude is also sinful and also requires repentance. I think this is what Judas is doing here. He hates Christ and masks his hatred for Him in humanitarian terms so as to look like the one who uses resources rightly and truly cares for others.

Because of these things Judas stands in vivid contrast to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in this passage. Martha earnestly desired to serve Jesus, Judas only wanted to serve himself. Lazarus reclined at the table in the presence of Jesus enjoying His company, Judas clearly thought that was a waste of time. Mary gave an extravagant gift to Jesus, Judas wanted to take that extravagant gift for himself. The way Mary gave to Jesus cost her much materially in this world. The way Judas took from Jesus added much materially to him in this world. The impression we have here is that Judas, because of losing this opportunity of financial gain, sought out another by turning Jesus in to the authorities.[12] We have before us in Judas an example of what Jesus said in Matthew 16:26, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

Such realities were not lost on Jesus in our passage. He responds to Judas in v7-8 saying, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me.” On the surface His response gives the impression that He is coldhearted to the poor by pointing out that serving Him is priority in this situation. He is not coldhearted toward those in need. He’s pointing out that while the reality of serving the poor will always be in high demand in this fallen world serving Him in tangible ways like this will not. Jesus will not grow to old age in His life and will, in fact, soon be taken from them. Mary can serve the poor everyday for the rest of her life but she will not always be able to serve and anoint Jesus for burial in the way she’s done here. So He rebukes Judas and points out that Mary’s extravagant display of devotion is entirely appropriate.[13] 

Devotion Threatened (v9-11)

In v9 we learn that word had gotten out and around the village of Bethany that Jesus was there visiting with His friends. So naturally they all came wanting to see Jesus and Lazarus. Notice that in two of the four references to Lazarus in this passage John is always careful to give us the detail that he was raised to new life. It’s as if he doesn’t want us to forget what happened.[14] And how could we? A dead man had been resurrected. So what was likely a small dinner party became a village event. And when something this large takes place you know word of it will eventually get around to the chief priests and Pharisees, that Jesus has reemerged back into the public square. This is exactly what happens. They heard about His presence in Bethany and in v10-11 decide that now Lazarus must be put to death as well “…because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.”

Caiaphas had said Jesus must die in order for them to live, but now it seems that Jesus’ death isn’t enough. Now Jesus and Lazarus must die for them to live. You must see the humor here. You think they’d understand that threatening to kill a man who’s been raised from the dead wouldn’t be threatening at all. We see this clearly, but they do not. Lazarus hadn’t preached a public message, gone from house to house telling what happened, no there really wasn’t much about Lazarus that would’ve caused them to have such hostility. To these Jewish leaders it wasn’t so much what Lazarus did for Jesus, but what Jesus did for Lazarus that threatened them. That he is now breathing calls them out and shows them to be fools.[15] So, in their anger unbelief they decide to kill both of them. See here friends, that sometimes the world, in it’s hateful opposition to Christ, will try to eliminate you and your gospel influence simply because they can’t stand being in your presence. So, we should not be surprised if the world hates us for trying to reach the world for Christ. It is power and life for us, but it is folly and madness to them.

Conclusion:

True extravagant devotion to Christ has been modeled, challenged, and threatened in our passage today. Yet in spite of Judas’ and the Jewish leaders evil plotting and planning, do you see how Jesus has changed and still is changing the lives of everyday ordinary people? Martha loving the Lord and giving herself in service to Christ, Mary loving the Lord and literally pouring out all she had before Christ, and Lazarus loving the Lord and simply enjoying his new life in Christ. Normal everyday people that we still read about today not because of the great things they’ve done for Christ, but because of the great things Christ has done for them.

So the question is simple. Has Jesus done great things for you? How then, will your life make that clear?

 

Citation:

[1] Richard Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary, page 71-79.

[2] Phillips, page 72-73.

[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT, page 576.

[4] Phillips, page 73.

[5] Morris, page 576.

[6] Morris, page 576-577.

[7] Spurgeon Study Bible, notes on John 12:2-3, page 1444.

[8] Wolfgang Musculus, John 1-12 – Reformation Commentary on Scripture, page 437.

[9] Johannes Brenz, John 1-12 – Reformation Commentary on Scripture, page 439.

[10] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC, page 429.

[11] Phillips, page 76.

[12] Morris, page 579.

[13] John Calvin disagrees saying, “Those persons, therefore, are absurd interpreters who infer from Christ’s reply that costly and magnificent worship is pleasing to God.” Obviously I take a different view on the passage and application of it, but I do see Calvin’s point and therefore admit that Mary’s action should be seen as the exception, not the rule. See Calvin’s whole comment in: John 1-12 – Reformation Commentary on Scripture, page 439.

[14] Morris, page 582.

[15] R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe – Preaching the Word Commentary, page 301.

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